I'm a theoretical physicist, and am doing some work on quantities called form factors. To an expert, a form factor says something about scattering particles from fields. This probably originated from the idea of an atomic form factor encoding the size and shape of an atom you're trying to scatter particles off. This interpretation now corresponds to typical usage in the computer industry, where form factors refer to size and shape of components.

My question is this - who came up with the term "form factor", and why does it mean size and shape? I can't help thinking that it's a rather arcane name!


I've got a new theory - can anyone back this up? One of the first people to properly understand the transmission of light between surfaces was Lambert, in his book Photometria. In that volume (1760) he determined the fraction of light from one surface which was received by another surface, effectively a factor corresponding to the form (shape) of the surfaces. I reckon that some time after this the term "form factor" was used to describe this result, which would have been pretty famous. This became later corrupted by use in forestry, ballistics and high energy physics. Unfortunately I can't get hold of the book, nor (which would be more useful) the first English translation.

  • Interestingly, I've just discovered that the term is also used extensively in forestry. Maybe this is where it originated? I'm still struggling to find out when and where, however! Jan 26 '16 at 17:57
  • I think the term is fairly common in packaging -- cubic, long and narrow, etc.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 26 '16 at 20:17
  • Interesting that until 1892, the term was spelled hyphenated more often than not, but then the spelling without hyphenation started becoming much more common: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Tim Ward
    Jan 26 '16 at 20:41
  • 1
    @TimWard - Well, you know how it is -- back in the 1890s they kinda let the language go all to heck.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 26 '16 at 23:46
  • There's also a use of the term form factor (or coefficient of form) in ballistics, which seems to date back to the 1870s and Francis Bashcroft. Still no hint of whether forestry, physics or ballistics were first to come up with it though! My hunch is that it was a mathematical term from geometry borrowed by all these people... Any references? Jan 27 '16 at 11:49

My impression of form factor in the sense of "size, shape, and design of an electronic product" is that it is what Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage (1966) calls a "popularized technicality":

popularized technicalities. ... In our time what is technical and professional is in high repute; what comes from the amateur is regarded as amateurish. Consequently many phrases have been borrowed from the sciences, the techniques, and the professions to adorn and lend expressiveness o ordinary prose. The choice and application of these words and phrases have naturally not been controlled by the experts; the transfer has been indeed amateurish, and examination shows that a good many of the new terms simply duplicate or replace simple words long in use.

Oxford Dictionary of Computing, sixth edition (2008) gives two definitions—one simple and one technical (and difficult)—of the term as used in computer science:

form factor 1. The shape of a piece of equipment expressed either in height, width, and depth, or in terms of a standard item such as a 3½-inch disk drive or a 19-inch rack. 2. The fraction of radiation diffusely emitted from one surface that is received by another. Form factors are used in radiosity calculations and are strictly geometric quantities whose values depend only on the slope and relative location of the surfaces in the scene. Form factors are independent of view and hence do not have to be recomputed for a change of view.

Today, form factor is used extensively in the computer/electronics industry to refer to something like "shape or design [of a product]." At the computer magazines where I worked for many years, some journalists used it constantly in things like cell phone reviews, where (for example) a particular phone would be described as having models were described as having a "clamshell" or a "candybar" or a "slab" form factor. Wikipedia has an entire article on "Form factor (mobile phones)," which begins with this definition:

The form factor of a mobile phone is its size, shape, and style, as well as the layout and position of its major components.

One of the earliest Google Books matches for form factor to use the term as a synonym for size is Jagdish Mehra, The Physicist's Conception of Nature (1973), which nonetheless applies the term o "charged bodies" not to product models:

The result of this more detailed analysis agrees with that of Bloch and Nordsieck except for the observation that the probability of very small energy losses depends on the size (form-factor) of the charged body, in such a manner as to 'render immediate application of real electrons impossible'.

An early instance of equating form factor with shape occurs in C.J. Abend, "Product Appearance as Communication," in Sensory Evaluation of Appearance of Materials: A Symposium (1973):

Another form factor [of a hand ax] is the pointed and wedge shape of the head which is directional and arrow-like in nature; this is a further visual clue with respect to direction of work. The back of the head is blunt, which reveals thickness and heft; massiveness, and potential inertia are made visible.

But the earliest instance that I could find of form factor as a popularized technicality used in connection with a product's size, shape, and design is from an advertisement for four Collins aviation instruments in Flying Magazine (October 1971):


IMPROVED RELIABILITY—At least twice the predicted mean time between failures.

TOP PERFORMANCE—Collins traditional, uncompromised standards of quality.

IDEAL FORM FACTOR—Minimizes rack space; fits previously unusable space in aircraft.

LATEST CAPABILITIES—Full channeling for proposed future requirements.

Here form factor may retain the cachet of its more technical senses in physics, electronics, and elsewhere, but it has lost their complicated meanings. It has become, in short, a ten-cent Madison Avenue term for "size, shape, and/or design."

  • Thanks for your answer, but it doesn't really deal with the central issue of my question i.e. "who came up with the term form factor". I'm aware that it's popular in many areas now, but the question is in what (probably academic) discipline did it arise, and why? Jan 27 '16 at 10:57
  • I think you won't do better than JEL's answer regarding "form factor" as a term originally used in forestry. In a comment under that answer, I cite a page from 1895 that gives a mathematical formula for calculating form factor in this sense. That formula is rather similar in mathematical presentation to the one for form factor in an electrical sense identified in JEL's answer. The two varieties of form factor may have arisen independently, but the timing of their emergence is certainly cozy.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 27 '16 at 17:45
  • By the way, I wasn't sure whether you were interested in knowing precisely when form factor crossed over from being a purely scientific concept to being a popular-culture buzzword shorn of any scientific precision—but I figured that even if you weren't, future readers attracted to your question might be. I hope that the resulting answer doesn't violate EL&U's standing rule that answers should address the question(s) asked by the OP on that page. If it does, I'm quite willing to delete it.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 27 '16 at 17:55

J. A. Fleming (mentioned in JEL's answer) is likely the person who coined the term form factor for the study of electromotive force. Mr. Fleming writes in his article "The Form Factor of Alternating-Current Curves" for The Electrical Journal (1896):

In the design of alternators ..., we have frequently to consider the relation between the true mean (T.M.) [the arithmetic mean or average of a set of values] and the square toot of mean-square (R.M.S.) [also called "the root mean square" or the square root of the mean of the squared values] of ... a single-valued curve representing a periodic current or electro-motive force. It is convenient to have simple term to express this ratio [i.e., RMS/TM]. I venture to suggest the term form factor for it. This quantify has been already recognised and symbolised in various alternating-current investigations.... The more peaked the curve the larger the form factor. If one dared to disregard proprieties of language, the form factor might otherwise be called the "coefficient of peakiness" of the curve.

The significance here is that the resistive loss in a transformer is indirectly proportional to the form factor. From Mr. Fleming's description, we can understand what "form" is being referenced: it's the shape of the graphed curve of electromotive force over time. From the suggested use, we can understand the why he chose "factor." The calculation (a division of quantities of equal dimensions) gives a pure number that can be inserted as a multiplier into an equation to calculate the resistive loss in a particular piece of electrical equipment.

  • Thanks for your answer - an interesting reference to be sure. It would be fascinating to know where J.A. Fleming got this term from. Perhaps he knew something of forestry...? In any case, I'm fairly sure that by 1896 the term was already in the scientific vernacular. Any idea where it might have come from originally? Jan 27 '16 at 10:58
  • @EdwardHughes JAF seems to be taking credit for coining the term, and the dates are right for that, but no clue where he got the idea. His biography on Wikipedia doesn't mention an arboreal interest, and his professional life would seem to have left little room for such studies, although he found time to help found the Evolution Protest Movement in the '30s (renamed the Creation Science Movement in the '80s). Wikipedia is a weak source for this inquiry, and a brief search in the google doesn't turn up a biography of the man.
    – deadrat
    Jan 27 '16 at 19:13

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